Scientists at war over Government funding

Click to follow
The Independent Online

An unseemly spat has broken out between two of the most distinguished bodies representing Britain's scientists and engineers over where the cuts should fall in the forthcoming review of the Government's science budget.

The Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) has broken with the unwritten rule of not directly criticising another scientific discipline by suggesting that maths and physics get an unfair amount of government money compared to engineering and technology.

The suggestion, made in the RAE's official submission to the Government's spending review, contradicts the advice of the equally distinguished Royal Society, which has privately intimated that the academy's suggestions are "unhelpful" in furthering the case for protecting the science budget.

In its submission, the RAE also criticises the funding allocated to particle physics, much of which is spent on the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) in Geneva, which makes "a lower contribution to the intellectual infrastructure of the UK compared to other disciplines".

The RAE submission says: "Although particle physics research is important it makes only a modest contribution to the most important challenges facing society today, as compared with engineering and technology where almost all the research is directly or indirectly relevant to wealth creation."

Lord Browne, the president of the Royal Academy of Engineering and former chief executive of BP, believes that science funding in Britain needs to be "rebalanced". He would like to see funding concentrated on activities that contribute to the economy within the short to medium term, rather than the sort of blue-skies, basic research carried out by many of the fellows at the Royal Society just a few doors away in Carlton House Terrace, presided over by Lord Rees, a distinguished Cambridge cosmologist.

"It is not suggested that those subjects where research funding is reduced should disappear. However, the country cannot afford to invest as much in such areas as it presently does and, arguably, the needs for solutions to the fascinating problems that lie in some areas of basic science is not urgent," the RAE's submission states.

The Royal Society's submission to the Government does not identify possible areas for cuts but argues for a steady maintenance of science funding overall, with the Research Councils left to decide funding priorities. "Any cuts must be administered carefully so that they do not cause lasting damage and can be reversed when the public finances allow," the Royal Society says.

The difference in opinion between the academies re-opens the old wounds dividing science and engineering that were meant to have been healed when they were brought under the one roof of a joint research council nearly 30 years ago.

Brian Cox, a particle physicist at Manchester University who also works at Cern, said he was surprised to see the comments in the RAE's submission but does not believe it marks a deeper divide between the disciplines.

"You tend to get rivalry between the grandees. I don't see rivalry at my level, at the mid-level of people who in many ways are actually doing the science and engineering," Dr Cox said.